Sunday, February 15, 2009

God, Prayer and Making a Difference II

This is the second part of this thread.

Here I consider the proposition: If there is a God, there might as well not be as far as this world is concerned. God might make a discernible difference in the hereafter, but makes no apparent difference in this one.

The proposition is often said in the context of petitionary prayer. One man prayers for his cancer to be cured, and the cancer disappears. Another man (or, perhaps, even the same man at another time) prays for a cure to his cancer and he dies. It looks like cancer sometimes takes life and sometimes it doesn't, and God doesn't make much difference either way.

I would first like to say something about the alleged results of petitionary prayer somehow proving that God is good. No one prays to God unless he already believes that God is good. That is why I pray to God and not Lucifer. We might say that some consequence of prayer reveals the glory of God, but the idea that the goodness of God is held in suspense pending our judgement of the results of prayer is, well, impious. It's like telling my wife that I will withhold judgement concerning her goodness pending what she gives me for Christmas. 

Atheists tend to think of prayer in a magical manner. You recite the words as an incantation, and the results should automatically follow, as though prayer involves a magic power to dominate the will of God. Petitionary prayer is exactly that, petitionary, as in we petition the King on some issue. Whether the King chooses to grant our petition is entirely up to him.

Anyway, to the main point: The proposition in question has it exactly backwards. Whether God makes a difference in the hereafter is a matter of faith and, admittedly, it is hard to discern what is going on in that realm. That God makes a difference in this world is clearly manifest. If God made no difference in this world, why would atheists bother about Him? Let us be clear: God must be something rather than nothing. If God were absolutely nothing, we would not be able to talk about him. Now it may be that God is only a fantasy, or an idea, or a meme, rather than the supernatural Ground of Being, but that is still something rather than nothing. The atheist says that Allah is but a fantasy, but that doesn't change the fact that the fantastical Allah seems to be having real effects in the real world, not the fantasy world. Santa Claus may be a fantasy but pointing it out does not change the fact that presents show up on Christmas morning. 

Similarly, Jesus Christ may be just a fantasy of Christians, but this fantasy has underwritten an institutional Church that has survived persecutions, the fall of the Roman Empire, inspired Catholic Knights to toss Moslems out of Europe, spread the Gospel to every corner of the world, and produced a Pope who brought down Communism. I am inclined to think that a fantasy so powerful may be more than just a fantasy, but that is neither here nor there at the moment. The point is that it is possible to deny that God is a substantial supernatural being, but ridiculous to claim that God has no effects in this world. Again, why would atheists care about God if God had little effect in the world? 

Western civilization was inspired by Christianity for most of its two thousand year history, only recently giving up on God and trying to make it on its own. Most everyone, atheists included, admit that Western civilization is in decline, not only politically, but morally and economically as well. How will that decline be arrested? We have already seen the power of the Christian God (fantasy or not) in the extraordinary growth of European civilization from 500 A.D. to 1900 A.D. What is the secular replacement for Him?

At the Secular Right blog, John Derbyshire describes the joys and motivations of his secular philosophy that he describes as Mysterian:

Naturalism has boundless pleasures for anyone with an inquiring mind and a sense of wonder... We're content to marvel at the truths that science uncovers, hope to understand more this year than we did last year, and... perhaps even writing books about them, if we can find a publisher willing to take us on.

The natural world's enough to keep my mind fully engaged; and I find I can live decently, honorably, and contentedly without any dependence on stories about improbable historical evens - miraculous impregnations and the like.

The Derb is famous for his pessimism about the future of Western civilization, and that pessimism, combined with the attitudes above, indicates that Derbyshire is essentially an Epicurean. He would fit right in at the late end of the Roman Empire, retiring to his villa to tend his garden and lament the manner in which the Empire has gone to pot. And here is the problem with atheism: It absurdly proclaims that God has no effects in the world, and is then impotent to reproduce the effects that God has obviously had.  Heather MacDonald writes that:

As for what will get us out of the economic crisis, believers will work out for themselves, why, if God is assurance of a brighter future, he didn't do something before hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. I'll bank on the powerful drive to trade, build enterprises, and the enjoy the fruits of human ingenuity.

Actually, God has done plenty. Two thousand years ago he suffered, died, and rose from the dead, and instituted a Church that persists to this day, a Church in which individuals may obtain the grace and learn the virtues that would underwrite a sound economy. That we do not avail ourselves of God's grace is our choice, not His. As we have turned our back on God, our government has become increasingly venal, self-serving and contemptuous of the people, and the people themselves all too willing to surrender their freedom and become slaves of the government. A free republic, as Adam Smith and our Founding Fathers understood, only works if men maintain the virtue to support a life of free men; lose the virtue, and slavery will return in some form or another, for men are natural slaves. We have seen how God supported freedom; how will atheism do it?

Heather writes that "the cultivation of manners rests on an understanding of how fragile social order is and how it needs to be constantly buttressed by instruction and correction." Well, no. More than an understanding of the problem is necessary. In addition the virtue, energy, and inspiration to effect instruction and correction is required - the kind of energy and inspiration that sent Catholic missionaries across the Atlantic to risk their lives in preaching the Gospel to the Iroquois Indians in the eighteenth century. Where is such drive and energy in atheism? It's nowhere; the atheists have retired to their dens to ponder nature and write books. Atheism is plenty real but ineffective. Allah may be a fantasy but is terribly effective. I'm betting an Allah in that contest. 

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